Healing with grassroots harmony

by Suzanne Kamata

Japanese-Jamaican-Korean fusion? Korean-flavored Japanese rock with a bit of Memphis blues thrown in? It’s hard to put a label on the multiethnic multigenre sounds of the Pak Poe Band.

“I’m greedy,” founder and frontman Pak says with a laugh, when explaining the abundance of influences in his music.

The band’s latest CD on the indie label Watch Out is “Toki wa Nagare (Time Is Flowing),” a collaboration with popular Korean musician Ohm In Ho of Shinchon Blues. The album features vocals in Korean, Japanese and English, as well as an assortment of instruments and styles. The opening track, “Mo Yame ni Shite,” a high-powered dance-if-you-wanna number is enlivened by traditional Korean musicians, while “Seoul City Blues” brings B.B. King to mind.

Released simultaneously as “Rainbow Bridge” in Korea on the mainstream Massmusic label, this collection is an exercise in international cooperation. Although postwar relations between Korea and Japan remain prickly, the Pak Poe Band and Ohm In Ho have achieved a grassroots harmony.

Pak himself is the product of two cultures. Born in 1955 to a Korean immigrant father and a Japanese mother, his name was registered as Tamotsu Hiroe.

His musical career began at the age of 10 when he built his first drum kit with scrap metal scavenged from his father’s junkyard. Soon after, he became a drummer in his elder brother Pak Sil’s band. (Pak Sil is currently the guitarist for the Pak Poe Band.) Although his father kept breaking his instruments in opposition, he continued playing.

Pak continued to play while attending Nihon University. In the early days, he and his band mates played covers of Western bands such as the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. However, after tagging along with Korean star Song Chang Sik on a tour of South Korea, he “discovered his blood.”

“I was reminded of when I was a kid,” Pak says, recalling the kimchi and passionate nature of the people he met. “At the same time, I woke up. I was always chasing rock ‘n’ roll music, but I started thinking about Asia. I thought, hey, we have an Asian sound here. [The trip] changed my life.”

Soon after, he changed his name to Pak Poe, the Korean pronunciation of his name’s kanji. He also became more active politically, participating in demonstrations and concerts for causes in Japan (he once organized a Woodstock-like concert in the mountains of Izu) and, for a brief stint, in San Francisco.

After returning to Japan in 1992, he formed Tokyo Pibimbab Club with Hirofumi Kasuga. The current combination of the Pak Poe Band came together in 1997.

In 1998, Pak worked on the Peace Boat as a musician and guide. He traveled with young adults to Cambodia, Vietnam and China. “It was serious,” he says. “We went to a [former] concentration camp. It was shocking, but at the same time we learned.”

During the two-month voyage, he provided music for partying and dancing on the boat, and also performed with local musicians in Vietnam and Cambodia. While the general public sometimes shuns political songs, Pak says that on the Peace Boat, everyone had open ears. “It was the perfect job for me,” he says.

Pak met Ohm in 1997 at the One Korea Festival in Ueno Koen Suijo Ongakudo. Impressed by their sound the Korean musician invited the Pak Poe Band to work with him and his band Shinchon Blues. They performed live together for three days in Seoul the following year, then set to work on a studio recording. The result is a compilation of each band’s own material as well as their combined efforts.

Pak is planning another trip to Korea for concerts in other Korean cities such as Pusan and Chegu. There is also talk of another studio album with Ohm.

Although Pak and Ohm’s partnership may be seen as an attempt to heal historical wounds, it is the sound itself that is most important to Pak. Whether he’s singing about Hiroshima, Monju or the love between a man and a woman, he is performing out of his passion for music.

“Every song is a love song,” he says. “Good music is a love song.”